In order to avoid his creditors, the young Benjamin Disraeli accompanied William Meredith, who was engaged to marry his beloved sister Sarah, on a tour through the Mediterranean and the Near East that lasted nearly 17 months (from June 1830 to October 1831). Disraeli visited Gibraltar, Malta, Albania, Greece, Constantinople, Cairo, Alexandria and Jerusalem, which was to be crucial in his quest for his Jewish identity. Before departure, he submitted his new novel, The Young Duke, to the publisher Henry Colburn, who accepted it, offering the author 400 pounds with the prospect of a further 100 pounds in the event of a second edition (Sultana 7). When the book was published in the spring of 1831 while Disraeli was still on his Oriental tour both readers and critics liked it, and the book sold well.
Disraeli was well aware that although silver fork fiction had little literary merit, stories about fashionable life and celebrities sold well. In The Young Duke, he offers a parodic recipe for writing a fashionable novel: ‘Take a pair of pistols and a pack of cards, a cookerybook and a set of new quadrilles; mix them up with half an intrigue and a whole marriage, and divide them into three equal portions’ (II, 22). When Disraeli’s father Isaac heard about his son’s new novel about fashionable life, he exclaimed with surprise: ‘The Young Duke!’ ‘What does Ben know of dukes?’ (Monypenny and Buckle 132). In fact, Disraeli then hardly knew anyhing about them. Of course, 45 years later Disraeli did enter the nobility: Queen Victoria elevated him to peerage, making him Earl of Beaconsfield. In 1878, in recognition of his success at the Congress of Berlin, she also wanted to make him a duke, but he refused and instead only accepted the Order of the Garter (Rappaport 130-31).
A silver-fork novel with autobiographical digressions
In The Young Duke, which B. R. Jerman regards as the most autobiographical of his novels (95), Disraeli returns to the silver fork themes of his first novel, Vivian Grey, mostly to the world of fashion and exploits of members of high society. In a novel that contains an interesting self-analysis of depression and elements of political criticism, the young author, who both admired and mocked the English aristocracy, creates as protagonist a young aristocrat of great promise. Although plot of The Young Duke is almost as improbable as that of Vivian Grey, the novel nevertheless has much to attract the attention of an inquisitive reader even today. Its subtitle: ‘A moral tale, though gay’ is taken from Byron's Don Juan. (The world ‘gay’ did not carry its present connotation as relating to homosexuality, though an 1857 Punch cartoon reveals that two decades after The Young Duke it referred to prostitution). William Kuhn suggests, Disraeli associated ‘gaiety’ with cheerful disposition, although Kuhn finds ‘a hint of Byronic licentiousness in Disraeli’s quotation’ and speculates on his latent homoerotic fascinations with good-looking young men (104). In The Young Duke, Disraeli introduces not only episodes from his early adult life but also presents his passion for politics. He makes a satirical picture of the English aristocracy that indulges in a hedonistic lifestyle while avoiding its political responsibilities.
The protagonist of the novel, George Augustus Frederic, Duke of St James, is an orphan, who has inherited an enormous fortune. Refusing to follow the advice and guidance of his good guardian, Mr Dacre, a Catholic and a former friend of his father’s, the young Duke becomes an unprincipled dandy who wastes much of his wealth on luxuries, debauchery and gambling. He wears effeminate clothes, has adulterous affairs with women, and employs ‘a troop of servants’ including a French cook, an Italian valet, a German jager and a Greek page. Gradually, he becomes reformed by his honest guardian Mr Dacre and his lovely daughter May, whom he eventually marries. May helps him realise that his privileged social position requires from him an extraordinary sense of duty and commitment to society.
A contemporary, reviewer, the American feminist writer, Margaret Fuller, wrote an apt commentary concerning the positive influence of a woman on a man:
The English novelist, D’Israeli, has, in his novel of The Young Duke made the man of the most depraved stock be redeemed by a woman who despises him when he has only the brilliant mask of fortune and beauty to cover the poverty of his heart and brain, but knows how to encourage him when he enters on a better course. 
In fact, all his life Disraeli himself depended on wise women, who helped him shape both his literary and political career. Eventually, the young Duke, who is treated by the author with both mocking envy and sympathy, is reformed. His marriage with May Dacre ‘symbolises the Duke’s alignment with a more stable and sedate philosophy in which principle and duty are paramount’ (Flavin 21).
The story, which has features of medieval moral allegory, recounts the young Duke’s slow transformation, under the discreet influence of a beautiful and benevolent woman, from a self-indulgent, selfish dandy to a responsible aristocrat who takes part in the social and political life of his country. In addition to this plot — a kind of political bildungsroman — Disraeli presents his own social and political ideas, which involve strong criticisms of parliamentary democracy. In the following passage, the author offers a mocking description of a debate in the House of Lords.
The Duke of St. James took the oaths and his seat. He was introduced by Lord Fitz-pompey. He heard a debate. We laugh at such a thing, especially in the Upper House; but, on the whole, the affair is imposing, particularly if we take part in it. Lord Ex-Chamberlain thought the nation going on wrong, and he made a speech full of currency and constitution. Baron Deprivyseal seconded him with great effect, brief but bitter, satirical and sore. The Earl of Quarterday answered these, full of confidence in the nation and in himself. When the debate was getting heavy, Lord Snap jumped up to give them something light. The Lords do not encourage wit, and so are obliged to put up with pertness. But Viscount Memoir was very statesmanlike, and spouted a sort of universal history. Then there was Lord Ego, who vindicated his character, when nobody knew he had one, and explained his motives, because his auditors could not understand his acts. Then there was a maiden speech, so inaudible that it was doubted whether, after all, the young orator really did lose his virginity. In the end, up started the Premier, who, having nothing to say, was manly, and candid, and liberal; gave credit to his adversaries and took credit to himself, and then the motion was withdrawn. While all this was going on, some made a note, some made a bet, some consulted a book, some their ease, some yawned, a few slept; yet, on the whole, there was an air about the assembly which can be witnessed in no other in Europe [I, 43-44].
In The Young Duke Disraeli criticises the lack of social commitment and corruption of an aristocracy largely preoccupied with ‘wealth and materialism’ (Flavin 18). As a budding politician, Disraeli imagines in his novel the need to reinvigorate the ancient English aristocracy so that it can take on a fuller responsibility for the nation and empire. Disraeli, who makes satiric observations of the both Houses of Parliament, shows his protagonist’s an ambivalent attitude to party affiliation; he cannot make a decision whether he wants to be a Whig or a Tory.
Am I a whig or a tory? I forget. As for the Tories, I admire antiquity, particularly a ruin; even the relics of the Temple of Intolerance have a charm. I think I am a tory. But then the whigs give such good dinners, and are the most amusing. I think I am a Whig; but then the Tories are so moral, and morality is my forte; I must be a Tory. But the whigs dress so much better; and an ill-dressed party, like an ill-dreamed man, must be wrong. Yes, I am a decided Whig. And yet — I feel like Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy. I think I will be a whig and tory alternate nights, and then both will be pleased; or I have no objection, according to the fashion of the day, to take a place under a Tory ministry, provided I may vote against them. [III, 177]
Disraeli had a similar dilemma at the outset of his political career. He wanted to be a radical Whig, but when he did not receive support from that party, he turned to the Tories. He made a close acquaintance with the former Tory Chancellor, Lord Lynhurst, and supported the High Tory faction, which advocated traditional, neo-feudal conservatism, represented in Parliament by Lord Derby.
The Catholic Emancipation
An important political theme of day was the Catholic Emancipation. The Dacres are Roman Catholics. and Disraeli writes about them sympathetically. The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 ended the discrimination of the Roman Catholics of Britain and Ireland. The Act permitted members of the Catholic Church to sit in the Parliament at Westminster as MPs and repealed other laws that imposed civil disabilities on Catholics, who were since then eligible for all public offices except those of Lord Chancellor, Monarch, Regent and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Kuhn notes that ‘Throughout the book Disraeli sympathizes with Roman Catholics in their ostracism from civil institutions and makes fun of anti-Catholic prejudice’ (107). However, as Robert O’Kell argues, ‘Disraeli found in the issue of Catholic Emancipation not just a topical setting to exploit, but a disguise for his own ambiguous feelings about his Jewish heritage’ (30). Under the cover of his Catholic sympathies, Disraeli tried in fact to convey his disapproval of anti-Jewish prejudice and abuse in England.
Disraeli was not a genuine English aristocrat and was considered by many as a Jewish impostor in English public life. Therefore, in his early fiction he wanted to show that although of Jewish descent, he was a passionate English patriot, truly attached to national Tory politics. In a long personal digression, which we can compare to an interior monologue, Disraeli writes emphatically in Byronic style about his love for England.
Oh, England! — Oh, my country! — not in hate I left thee — not in bitterness am I wandering here. My heart is thine, although my shadow falls upon a foreign strand; and although full many an Eastern clime and Southern race have given me something of their burning blood, it flows for thee! I rejoice that my flying fathers threw their ancient seed on the stern shores which they have not dishonoured: — I am proud to be thy child. Thy noble laws have fed with freedom a soul that ill can brook constraint. Among thy hallowed hearths, I own most beautiful affections. In thy abounding tongue, my thoughts find music; and with the haughty fortunes of thy realm, my destiny would mingle! ... Few can love thee better than he who traces here these idle lines. Worthier heads are working for thy glory and thy good; but if ever the hour shall call, my brain and life are thine [II, 235, 238].
Disraeli’s conservative patriotism led him gradually to the formulation of the concept of one-nation conservatism, or one-nationism, based on paternalism, patriotism, and pragmatism. Although he never used this term literally, his 1845 novel Sybil; or The Two Nations argues that although Britain is the ‘greatest nation that ever existed’, it is bitterly divided into two nations, the rich and the poor. Thus, as early as in the year of the publication of The Young Duke, Disraeli emphasised the principle of shared social commitment and obligation that emerged in utter contrast to extreme individualism then dominant within the laissez-faire ideology. Like Thomas Carlyle, he calls for the renewal of an idle, selfish English aristocracy that had lost its sense of mission as the natural leader of the nation.
The Young Duke, written in an epigrammatic style, marks Disraeli’s gradual transition from the novel of fashion to the political novel. It not only reveals Disraeli’s quest for identity but also contains a significant warning to the English aristocracy. Unless it undergoes a process of self-reformation, it will lose its privileged position in society and thereby contribute to the degradation of England. Disraeli believed that the young members of the aristocracy had the ability for renewal thatwould contribute to the general welfare of the nation. This idea found realisation in his attempt to lead the ‘Young England’ splinter group of Tory aristocrats, which promulgated paternalistic social Toryism in the 1840s.
Bibliography: References and Further Reading
Adburgham, Alison. Silver Fork Society: Fashionable Life and Literature from 1814 to 1840. London: Constable, 1983.
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.
Bradford, Sarah. Disraeli. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982.
Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Disraeli, Benjamin. The Young Duke. A Moral Tale Though Gay. In three volumes. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831.
Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
Froude, James Anthony. The Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1890.
Hitchman, Francis. The Public Life of the Right Honourable the Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Chapman and Hall, 1879.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
Kirsch, Adam. Disraeli. New York: Nextbook and Schocken, 2008.
Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.
Meynell, Wilfred. Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903.
Monypenny, William Flavelle, George Earle Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. Volume: 1. Edition: Revised. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968.
O’Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Pearson, Hesketh.Dizzy: The Life and Nature of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. London: Methuen, 1952.
Rapparport, Helen. Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.
Richmond, Charles, Paul Smith, eds. The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. New York: Crown, 1995.
Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Sultana, Donald. Benjamin Disraeli in Spain, Malta, and Albania 1830-32: A Monograph.. London: Tamesis Book Limited, 1976.
Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.
Last modified 25 February 2016